Though he’s been a prolific collaborator for an incredible array of artists, it’s been 25 years since Nile Rodgers released a full album of new material with Chic, the disco-funk ensemble known for indelible dance classics that defined an entire genre (and were responsible for spawning several others). This June, Chic drop the aptly titled It’s About Time, their first LP in over two decades, and the hook on the lead single might as well be its mission statement: “I wouldn’t want to live in the past, but it’s a nice place to visit.” As progenitor of literally hundreds of chart-topping hits, from “Le Freak” to “Get Lucky,” Rodgers has managed to spin nostalgia into earworm gold time and time again. But before he was a hitmaker, he was the guitarist for the house band at iconic Harlem venue the Apollo, backing Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, and Parliament Funkadelic, among others.
The theater has a reputation for being a place “where stars are born and legends are made,” just as its slogan states. And there’s no doubt that accompanying some of r&b’s most successful artists throughout the Seventies had a huge effect on a young Nile Rodgers. He formed Chic later that decade with the now-deceased Bernard Edwards, becoming one of the bestselling artists from the era. So it made sense that Chic would headline the theater’s tenth annual Spring Gala benefit concert, held last night to honor the donors who not only kept it from shuttering in the Eighties, but have allowed it to flourish and remain a keystone of Harlem culture.
The evening began with brief performances from up-and-comers Luke James and Kimberly Nichole. With his incredible range, James brought the house down during an Amateur Night performance at the Apollo some years ago, and has gone on to pen several Grammy-nominated songs and tour with Beyoncé. His light-as-a-feather falsetto contrasted with the powerhouse vocal stylings of Nichole, best known as a fan favorite from Season 8 of The Voice. Both artists displayed the kind of raw, arresting talent that shines on the Apollo stage, symbolic of the theater’s ability to nurture the next wave of celebrated entertainers flush with immediately recognizable star power.
Up next, Ne-Yo delivered a show-stopping performance that finally got the reluctant crowd moving a little. Ne-Yo is another artist who rose to prominence after appearing at the Apollo’s Amateur Night, first as the songwriter behind Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and finally as a performer in his own right with the success of his 2006 album In My Own Words. Opening with “Sexy Love” from that same LP, Ne-Yo was flanked by four lithe dancers who seemed like they might’ve been equally comfortable in a hip-hop video or at a ballet recital. Going on to cover Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” and a selection of material from his latest record, Non-Fiction, Ne-Yo was every bit the consummate showman, spinning on his heels, tipping his dapper fedora, and tossing his mic from hand to hand. His dancers returned for “Coming With You” and “Time of Our Lives.” The evening’s host, A.J. Calloway, demanded an encore of the latter, which request Ne-Yo gladly obliged.
With her austere tribute to B.B. King, Roseanne Cash brought things down just a notch. Waxing poetic about Mississippi blues, Johnny Cash’s eldest daughter covered Bobbie Gentry’s Southern Gothic “Ode to Billie Joe” and played her own “50,000 Watts,” inspired by a billboard she and husband Jon Leventhal came across while walking in Memphis. It advertised WDIA, the radio station where King began his career as a disc jockey and met T-Bone Walker; the song Cash wrote in turn was about finding inspiration in songs heard over the airwaves. Though country music doesn’t often figure into the Apollo’s repertoire, Cash diligently honored the memory of the recently deceased King of the blues.
Truly, though, the Apollo Gala belonged to Chic. Rodgers lovingly described his initiation into the Apollo family at the tender age of nineteen, when Screamin’ Jay Hawkins popped out of a coffin onstage to prank the unsuspecting guitarist. Delighted to finally play his own tunes onstage, Chic began with a rousing version of “Everybody Dance,” the first song he ever recorded. The band also performed tracks Rodgers had written for others, including Diana Ross’s 1980 smash hits “I’m Coming Out” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Laid track to track, it’s astonishingly clear how influential Rodgers’s music has been, particularly in hip-hop; almost all of these tunes found new life in sample form on hip-hop records by Will Smith, Notorious B.I.G., and, of course, Sugarhill Gang’s landmark single “Rapper’s Delight,” which uses “Good Times” as its backbone. Closing out the set with it, Rodgers even threw in some of Sugarhill’s verses, along with a blazing guitar solo on his famous white Strat.
Notably absent from Chic’s set were songs from It’s About Time, but perhaps Rodgers is keeping those under wraps for now. His disco-era material remains canonical in terms of pop music, and that’s what got the benefit’s attendees swaying and singing along. Those songs are also a potent reminder of the power of the Apollo as a breeding ground for innovative music and staggering talent, and its importance as a cultural institution. Even if he doesn’t want to live in the past, all Nile Rodgers has to do to visit it is walk through the Apollo’s hallowed doors.